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Microsoft’s recent success with the Surface doesn’t change the fact the tech giant is primarily known for software. After all, Windows and Microsoft Office are ubiquitous in corporate life. But don’t let these juggernauts erase memories of the Z80 SoftCard, Microsoft’s first hardware product.

Introduced April 2, 1980, the SoftCard had an interesting mission, in hindsight: It was a microprocessor designed to expand the capability of the Apple II personal computer. After plugging the SoftCard into an Apple II, a user could run CP/M operating system programs—then dominant in the business world—on the Apple II. The card, which sold at a retail price of $349 (more than $1,100 in 2021 dollars), came packaged with the CP/M operating system, as well as BASIC.

The critical role of SoftCard

Popular business software that ran on CP/M included the WordStar word processing program and DBase database software. Developed by Gary Kildall in fall 1974, the CP/M operating system was, as the Computer History Museum describes it, one of the “fundamental building blocks of the personal computer revolution.”

A computer running CP/M wasn’t limited to running proprietary software; it could run third-party software from a disk drive, enabling a proliferation of low-cost application development for business, home and academic use (CP/M was a predecessor to MS-DOS).

Within three months of the SoftCard’s release, Microsoft had sold 5,000 units, and the SoftCard was the company’s top revenue generator of 1980. The SoftCard was discontinued in 1986.

Photo: OlivierBerger, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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